Monday, March 4, 2013

How Curious

You may remember when I went on and on about how much I love the Zite app on my phone (thanks, Bren).  Well, whenever I read something on there that I particularly like, I end up forwarding it to someone I think will appreciate it.  That is how Seth and I ended up having an interesting discussion about people who "popularize" science.  Let's start with the definition of "pop science":
Popular science, sometimes called literature of science, is interpretation of science intended for a general audience. ...popular science is broad-ranging, often written by scientists as well as journalists, and is presented in many formats, which can include books, television documentaries, magazine articles and web pages.
I imagine most of the people reading this will think this is a good thing, especially those of us who don't understand half of what scientists are talking about.  Seth is a scientist and I've spent most of my life trying to make sense of things he tells me.  I feel very fortunate that he is so patient with me.  I believe that any time someone is breaking down knowledge so that anyone can understand it, they are doing good.  And, for the most part, that is exactly what these pop scientists are doing.  They are trying to explain to everyday people what is so amazing about what they study.  They are making it accessible to anyone who is interested.

The exception is Richard Dawkins, whom I find interesting, but a bit...I don't know, pugnacious?  As fascinating as he can be, and as much as I am not a religious person, I don't agree with him that science can replace religion.  In fact, I don't think it should.  I know quite a few religious people and I respect their beliefs, even if I don't always agree with what they have to say.  I also find faith to be an amazing thing and when facing the loss of a loved one, I'm even a bit jealous.  

In any case, the antagonistic article Seth and I were discussing came from the UK's The Guardian and was written by Eliane Glaser.  Glaser insists that pop scientists are using "the misty-eyed language of religion."  Her first complaint seems to be use of the word "wonder."  So let's pause here for a definition of that word:
1. to think or speculate curiously: to wonder about the origin of the solar system.
2. to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel (often followed by at  ): He wondered at her composure in such a crisis.
3. to doubt: I wonder if she'll really get here.
verb (used with object)
4. to speculate curiously or be curious about; be curious to know: to wonder what happened.
5. to feel wonder at: I wonder that you went.
As much as "wonder" is undoubtedly part of religion, it is neither reserved for it nor the first thing that most of us think of when we hear that word.

Glaser's second complaint, that all these scientists are anti-religion (read: athiest) and therefore should not be using such religious language, is just silly.  I can understand her having a beef with Dawkins, who goes about actually trying to debunk religion.  But why attack the rest of them?  ...How dare you be in wonder of the universe!..  Nope, doesn't work for me.

I got the impression from her article that what Glaser resented more than anything else was that these scientists have fame.  Why on earth would you resent such a group of people - we're talking about people who are brilliant and hard-working, but largely unappreciated and quite often underpaid.  People who are making a name for themselves by trying to make science more accessible (read: less elitist!).  Why resent and revile these people?  Which brings us around to the article I neglected to tell you about before, the one that started it all.  It wasn't mentioned before because it described Glaser's article as "a really grumbly post" and I just didn't think it had enough teeth.  But it does deserve a mention for leading me to The Guardian.  You can find that original article here, if you're interested.

So you've hopefully read the post from The Guardian and you've already heard from me (the layperson for this post).  Now I'd like to share with you how Seth felt about it (this is with his permission, of course).  I will warn you that he isn't shy about stating his opinion (which is why we like having him around):
Hello Jess.  I read the column which criticized Glaser's column, and then read Glaser's original column/polemic in The Guardian newspaper (UK). Glaser is wrong in characterizing Richard Dawkins as merely a "popularizer" of science. I did read his 614 page magnum opus (“The Ancestor’s Tale”) on the current state of evolutionary knowledge, which is somewhat beyond the full understanding of a layperson and is geared more to scientists from fields other than evolution. Dawkins is a great scientist in his own right and not just a “popularizer,” although I see nothing wrong with being both. 
Where Glaser should have focused is Dawkins' entry into being a polemicist with his latest book debunking religion. Here he departs from the realm of science to provide a polemic against religion and then proposes that modern science can replace religion as to providing a “place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation” to humanity. Whereas many scientists, including me, do see the last 100 years of scientific discoveries as providing a sense of wonder at our universe (a billion stars in the galaxy and a billion galaxies in the universe is certainly a wonder), we do not see science as a replacement for everything that religion provides. Science is not going to comfort someone that has just lost a loved one. Science is not going to provide a set of rules to live by in a just society (Golden Rule, Ten Commandments). But this criticism of scientists going overboard does not justify demeaning “popularizing” scientists, or for that matter, for “popularizing” doctors of medicine. 
Glaser appears to conflate such educational programs as "popularizing" science with a patronizing attitude of scientists towards laypeople, which I don’t see. Brian Greene explaining the weirdness of quantum physics on NOVA is not equivalent to "deifiying" either himself or science. Dr. Oz, a medical“popularizer” on TV provides useful medical information to laypeople, which is good. Unlike Dawkins, he is not a leader in his field of medicine but serves a useful purpose, telling Oprah's audience to change their diets and get regular testing for heart function and cancer. 
I particularly appreciate Brian Greene’s TV programs as he does capture the wondrousness and the weirdness of the universe - lots of counter-intuitive things, like a particle existing in two different places at the same time and quantum “entanglement” (look it up on Wikipedia). I find his programs to be excellent and beneficial to laypeople if they can stay awake while trying to understand the weird things. 
The one interesting thing about the weirdness and counter-intuitiveness of our world, as revealed by science as we study small particles (e.g. quarks) and their behavior, is that it is obvious that science cannot answer all questions. For example, what happened before the Big Bang which created our universe and where did the energy for the Big Bang come from (this gets back to the argument of “First Cause”). No one knows. Where did that energy come from? No one knows. We see things in particle physics and say they are weird and that's just the way it is and leave it at that, but simply do not understand why the weird things occur at smaller dimensions. They just do and that’s the way it is. Weird things (e.g. Moses talking to God disguised as a burning bush, Jesus walking on water) used to be the realm of religion, but religion depended on folk tales written by people several thousand years ago when human knowledge was relatively primitive. 
Glaser says that scientists complain about a lack of prominence in our culture. This is bullsh*t. Scientists complain about not getting paid as well as lawyers, who contribute much less to society.  
If you want to know what really annoys me regarding laypeople’s (especially politicians) view of science which might qualify as a somewhat insidious form of "deification of science" it is a remark I've heard several times from people with little knowledge of what it takes to do science - this is that "all problems can be solved (e.g. making solar power viable in terms of cost and energy production requirements for a planet of 7 billion people) if sufficient money is devoted to the work. This then translate into a political belief that whenever we are not yet successful in solving a critical problem, it is because as a society we have underfunded the work (thus offering someone or some group to blame). 
For example, the failure to solve some of the problems facing solar power as a replacement for fossil fuels is blamed for underfunding of the field (sometimes due to evil fossil fuel companies blocking development of a competitor) rather than the fact that the problems are very difficult and basic research is not yet at a state of knowledge to allow solutions (it is hard to schedule breakthroughs). 
In addition to not yet achieving the basic research knowledge to address some difficult problems, there may also be a problem in that one cannot change the laws of physics (unless on Star Trek) and this might also limit our ability to solve a problem. We have had several hundred clinical trials of potential HIV vaccines. Doubling the funding of vaccine development might not improve this problem until basic research into how the virus works (actually fairly advanced now) and how the human immune system interacts with the virus (not as advanced) reaches a higher state of understanding. The lack of a HIV vaccine is no one’s fault – not the fault of scientists, not the fault of funding agencies, not the fault of pharmaceutical companies. Not all problems can be solved during your lifetime. 
In conclusion, many of the “popularizers” of science are doing good things so more power to them; Dawkins is a great scientist in addition to being a higher level “popularizer” and unfortunately a polemicist; science is definitely not a replacement for religion and not all scientists agree with Dawkins on that; and scientists should be paid more than lawyers, politicians and other groups which contribute little positive to humanity.

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